Wedding Day-- a Forever Knight Story Wedding Day
by Fleurette

Part 1

Janette looked longingly at the San Francisco house she and Nicolas had called home for nearly twenty years. Although not one to cling to mortal possessions, she couldn't help but feel a little sentimental as Nicolas locked the door for the last time. Placing the keys near the door where the real estate agent would find them, Nick turned back to her.

Seeing the look on her face, he asked her, "What's the matter?"

"I'll... miss this house, Nicolas. It was more than a house... it was our home," she replied.

Nick smiled slightly at her. "We've had some good memories here. I'll miss it, too."

"It seems a shame that we must leave it," Janette said wistfully.

"It's time we moved on, Janette. I thought we were agreed."

"We *are* agreed, Nicolas." Janette kissed his cheek lightly.

"Good," Nick said, kissing her also. "Shall we say good-bye to San Francisco now? We have a plane to catch."

Despite Nick's eagerness to be on their way, they both stood in silence before the house. Each was lost in pleasant memories of the past two decades. here they had made a home-- entertaining friends, dabbled in art and fashion, loved and laughed. They had been happy here.

Janette awoke, stretching to loosen stiff muscles. Although she loved flying--naturally--even the private jet was cramping to her. She looked to where Nick slept by her side. Nicolas had been quite reticent before he'd suddenly decided to pick up and move to England. When she'd questioned him about it, he would give her some song and dance about feeling a need to be with family. Then he would go back to being quiet and secretive.

Secretive. Janette glanced at Nick again, an expression of doubt on her lovely face. Nicolas had been too secretive, in Janette's opinion. There had been a time, when she was LaCroix's still, when she could read his every thought. Nicolas could never hide his mind from her. Now, however... she sighed. Although some miracle had allowed her to retain most of her strength and abilities after Nick brought her back across, she no longer had free access to his thoughts.

She wished she knew why he really wanted to go to England. It couldn't be just a need for family. There had to be more. Janette was worried. She knew that Natalie Lambert was still living in England. Doubt gnawed at her. Could Nicolas's silence mean he was growing restless? Would she lose him when they arrived in England?

Nicolas... Janette thought, sighing again as she trailed her fingers lightly along his cheek.

Nick stirred in his sleep and his eyes fluttered open. "Janette," he breathed in a husky, sleepy voice. His arms found their way around her, pulling her down to him for a kiss. "You're awake, my love. Why?" Nick asked when they separated at last.

"I cannot sleep on this contraption. It's much too crowded." And I couldn't stop worrying about what will happen when we arrive at our destination, she thought bitterly, hiding her eyes from him by turning around.

Not sensing her doubt, Nick chuckled. "You don't like LaCroix's private jet?" he asked. "It's huge, Janette. There's plenty of room to move about."

"You know quite well that I have always preferred an open sky to these man-made, flying carriages," she snapped back at him. She then stood and walked away from the bed.

Nick followed her. Coming up behind her, he wrapped his arms around her and pressed their bodies together. "What's wrong, Janette? This isn't like you."

"C'est rien," she whispered to him, shaking her head from side to side.

Turning her to face him, Nick studied her closely. He could see the pain and hesitance in her eyes. He wished he knew what was troubling her. He *could* know what it was, but he'd promised never to interfere with her life as LaCroix had done with him. Nick reached up and traced her cheek bone with his fingertips, running them gently along her skin. "I wish you would confide in me, Janette. I know there is something wrong, and I would like to help."

I wish *you* would confide in me, as well, Nicolas, Janette thought sadly as he kissed her forehead.

Part II

"Mother! Uncle Nicolas!" Angele greeted them at the airport with enthusiasm. "It's been so long!"

"Nearly thirty years," Nick said into her ear as he hugged his 'niece.' "How have you been, Princess?" he asked her.

"I'm fine. I'm wonderful!" Angele replied with a laugh.

Indeed, she looked it. Angele was glowing with life and energy the likes of which Nick had not seen in her for quite a while.

"You look radiant, my dear," Janette noted as she, too, hugged her daughter. "You must be quite happy in your life here."

"Oh, Mother, I am. I never expected to be after Marius..." her voice trailed off for a moment, then she laughed shortly. "It matters not. Jean Claude and I are trying to reconstruct our life together. I am happy, and things are as they should be."

Angele led them to her car without another word on the subject of her happiness. Nick and Janette exchanged glances. The relationship between Angele and Jean Claude reminded them both of their own relationship in so many ways. They both wondered if their children knew what they were doing. Would they truly find happiness this time, or was Angele's euphoria a product of her trying to convince herself that such happiness existed? Only time would tell.

"Jean Claude will be so thrilled to see you both," she said as she started the car.

He would have been, had he been there. Angele found a note on the table telling her that he had something important to do "at the office."

"What does that mean, 'at the office'?" Janette asked her daughter.

Angele sighed. "It means he has duties as an Enforcer to perform. It happens from time to time."

"Is he gone much, Angele?" Nick asked. The rather infrequent letters he'd received from Natalie over the last thirty years had hinted that Martin was always busy dispensing with his "Enforcer duties." He wondered if the same was true of Jean Claude. His son, although serious at times, had never been a work-aholic, and Nick found it hard to believe that he could be one now.

"Oh, no! Jean Claude has plenty of free time, unlike Martin. Martin is leaving Natalie alo--" Angele stopped suddenly. She could feel Nick's eyes burning into her and hear his silent question, "Does he treat Natalie well?" She breathed a deep sigh. "Martin loves Natalie a great deal," she said quietly, "but his work often takes him away. Jean Claude says that since his master died, Martin has shouldered most of her work as well as his own." Her voice was sad.

"You worry about her, don't you, Angele?" Nick asked.

"Yes, I do. Natalie has a been a good friend to me. She's loves him, but lately she has been so sad. It pains me to see her this way."

Janette frowned, not liking the path this conversation was taking. "Where shall we put our things?" she asked suddenly, interrupting them.

"Oh!" Angele exclaimed. "I forgot about that." She picked up two of the suitcases and lead her mother down the hallway to the guest room.

Martin gazed longingly at the photograph on his desk. Natalie's smiling, happy face reminded him that he had yet again left her alone on an important night. Jean Claude had invited them to a special dinner party in honor of his father's visit. Martin winced, remembering how crushed she had been when he told her he had to work. It didn't seem to matter to her that Jean Claude himself had been called upon by the High Council, either. She only knew that Martin had yet again let her down.

"Oh, Natalie," Martin said to the picture with a sigh, "if only I knew how to make it up to you. I love you."

"Who is it you love?" came a voice from the doorway. Martin looked up just as an elegant, exotic woman sauntered into his office. She paused at the desk to pick up the photograph and examined it closely. "A bit plain, I should say, Martin. Especially for a man like you... a man who could have *everything* he desired." As she spoke, she leaned across the desk until their bodies were nearly touching. Martin could smell her body's natural perfume, a mixture of lavender and calla lilies.

"Kisha..." he breathed, his voice jogging him out of the trance her appearance had put him in. "Hello," he continued, rambling, as he reached out and took the picture from her. Then he stood and moved away from the desk, putting distance between them. "Nat isn't plain, Kisha, but I wouldn't expect *you* to know that."

The woman smiled at Martin's obvious barb. "True," she said, sidling up to him. Touching her finger to the collar of his shirt, she continued. "When one has bathed in golden fountains filled with the purest waters of the Nile, all else pales in comparison." She leaned forward to brush his lips with her own and then flitted away from him, going back to the desk. "What did you call her, again? Gnat? Is she a bug, perhaps?"

"Kisha," Martin's voice held a warning in it.

Kisha laughed merrily at him. "Now, now. What a short temper you have, darling. You *know* I am only teasing. She's very pretty... for a child."

"Kisha," Martin warned again.

And again, she laughed. "What *are* you going to do to me, Martin? To the daughter of Pharaoh?"

"The days of the pharaohs are long gone, Kisha, and I am afraid of no one. I would appreciate it if you refrained from speaking ill against my lady." So saying, he resumed his place behind his desk. "You came in here for a reason. What was it?"

Kisha's eyes narrowed at Martin's stern voice. "You're very bold with your tongue, Martin Cross. I do admire that... talent... in a *man.* However, you should remember that *here,* in this place, *I* still rule." She fixed him with a sweet smile, and said, "I came to give you this, and to tell you that you are free to go for the remainder of the evening."

Martin accepted the folded paper she held out to him and read it. When he was finished, he looked up at her questioningly. "When do we leave?" he asked.

"In two nights. That should give enough time to inform your *lady.*" Kisha replied with a bubbly laugh. Still laughing, she made her way to the door. "I can't wait to be alone with you, Martin," she cooed as the door closed behind her.

Martin slumped back into his chair and let out a deep sigh. "Two days," he muttered sadly. "It isn't enough time."

Part III

Angele, Janette, and Nick turned to the door in surprise as Jean Claude entered, followed by Martin.

"Darling!" Angele rushed forward to embrace Jean Claude. "I thought you would be working all night."

'It turned out to be nothing too pressing," he smiled as his lips found hers.

"Nothing *too* pressing he says," Martin said with chuckle. "Really, Johnny, you have no idea how I long for the opportunity to be given your assignments."

"Oh? You like the idea of suppressing the riotous youth of London?" Jean Claude fixed his cousin with a wry grin. "Then you, sir, may gladly have it. *I'd* rather be sitting in that cozy office of yours any day."

"And you got the evening off, too, Martin?" Janette interjected the two Enforcer's banter.

"I did, yes," replied Martin with a smile at her. "I just thought I would stop in and say hello before I go home to Natalie." A look of wistfulness flickered across his face. He turned to Angele. "Was she *too* angry with me, Angele?" he asked.

"Not so much, really. Mostly, she was sad, Martin," Angele told him.

Martin sighed. "I don't like it either, Angele. I know you blame me because Natalie is unhappy, even if you don't say it. I'm sorry. I thought that if she moved to England, we would be closer. When we weren't, I suggested we live together. I just can't help it that my work keeps tearing us apart. Were I able to stop it, you know that I would."

"Then go to her, Martin," Angele advised. "Go to her now and tell her that. She needs to hear it more than I do."

Martin nodded, sorrow flickering across his face. "I shall take my leave, then. Janette," he turned to her, instantly transforming into a polite courtier. Taking her hand and bending over it in a mock kiss, he said, "It is a pleasure to see you again. I hope de Brabant is treating you as you deserve." Janette smiled coyly back at him and slapped him playfully. Martin returned her merry smile before turning to Nick. He stiffened, then, his body and face growing slightly cold. "De Brabant," he said, nodding in both a greeting and a farewell.

"Martin," Nick replied just as rigidly.

Their eyes met, and all in the room could see that neither of them had let go of the hostility between them. Martin seemed on the verge of saying something more, but turned, instead, to the door.

He found her in their bedroom, dressed in a white, terry robe that was faded and worn. Her hair was damp and tangled, and he paused in the doorway to admire the beauty of her casualness.


Nat turned towards the sound of his voice. "Martin," she whispered softly. Their eyes met, and she smiled hesitantly at him. "I thought you were going to be working all night. What happened?"

"Since when do I need a reason to come home early and make love to you?" he asked her.

Before she could respond, he was kneeling beside the armchair where she sat, his arms winding around her in a soft embrace. "I'm sorry, Natalie," he whispered as his lips nuzzled her earlobe. "I didn't mean to disappoint you so. Say you'll forgive me." At that moment, their lips found each other, and Martin received all the answer he needed to know that he had been forgiven.

Natalie awoke feeling happier than she had felt in a long time. Martin's arms, strong and yet so gentle, were draped over her body as he slept by her side, warming her to her very core. She smiled as she remembered that night-- how he had returned home unexpectedly and loved her into the wee hours of the day.

"I love you, Martin," she whispered to his sleeping form. Entwining her fingers with his, she brought his hand up to her lips and kissed his finger tips lovingly.

"And I love you, as well," Martin replied, his eyes popping open as he rolled over to face her.

They kissed, long and deep. Natalie felt her lazy, sleepy feeling give way to desire. Smiling down at him, she allowed her passion to dictate her actions, and before long, they were making love once again.

Later, as they both lay there, their bodies weak and sated, Martin rose from the bed and padded into the kitchen. Natalie followed him with her eyes. There was something wrong. She couldn't tell what it was, but she could sense it. There had been an intensity to Martin's love-making that had never been there before. After pondering it for a while, Natalie slipped from the bed and followed her lover.

"Martin," she whispered. "What's wrong?"

He was standing before the refrigerator, reaching for a bottle, when she came up behind him. Turning, he smiled at her. "Nothing, my dear."

"Then why did you leave me in that big bed all alone?" Nat asked with a pout.

"I was hungry is all. Care to join me for a drink?" He showed her the bottle, his smile widening a little.

She sighed with relief and went to pull glasses from the cupboard.

Part IV

Natalie glanced over at Martin as he drove, intent upon watching the road. There was an uneasiness about him tonight, the same uneasiness she had sensed in him the night before, only he wouldn't acknowledge it. When she'd asked, he smiled, telling her nothing could possibly be wrong as long as she was by his side, and she'd dismissed it. Tonight, however, his disquiet was more noticeable. It worried her.

"Martin?" she began, interrupting the silence that filled the car. He turned to her, and for a moment, Natalie thought she saw sadness in his eyes. "Are you feeling well? You've been so distant at times."

"Oh, Nat, I'm fine. Truly I am. I just have a lot on my mind right now, that's all." With his free hand, he reached over and patted her knee in reassurance. "And more than anything, I would really like to be home loving you, instead of visiting with de Brabant."

He grinned at her, making her laugh. "We've been though this already, I thought. I would love to see Nick again-- and Janette. It's been so long," Nat replied.

"I know, I know," Martin acknowledged. "But it feels like it's been even longer since I've seen you."

Although Natalie wasn't sure of this, it sounded as if Martin truly meant what he had said, instead of it being the joke he made it sound like. She couldn't ask him, however, as they had finally arrived at Jean Claude and Angele's home. Martin parked the car next to Jean Claude's new sports car and went to open Natalie's door.

"You're so beautiful," he whispered as his lips touched hers lightly. "Are you sure you don't want to ditch these guys? We still have time?"

Natalie laughed softly, kissing him back. "I'm positive! Now, come on!"

Nick's eyes widened when he saw Natalie enter the room. Martin and Jean Claude followed a few steps behind her, whispering secretively to one another. Nick hardly noticed them. Natalie was...

"Nat!" he exclaimed, jumping up from the sofa to embrace her. "You look so beautiful!"

Their hug was friendly, but awkward. Too many years had come between them, and they both felt it. As they separated, Nat smiled shyly at him. "Thanks, Nick. You're looking good yourself." She looked over to Janette and extended her smile to her one-time rival. "How are you both?" she asked.

"We're fine," Janette said, patting the couch cushion. "Nicolas, come sit back down." Nick took his place beside her, and Nat sat down directly across from them, in what had been her favorite chair when she and Angele had lived together. "Nicolas is right, Natalie, you *do* look lovely. Practically glowing, I would say. You must tell me your secret."

"It's love, mother," Angele broke in with a wry smile. "Natalie has been gifted with the rare love of a good man. Is that not the case, Nat?"

They all turned expectantly to where Martin and Jean Claude stood in the doorway, still whispering in hushed tones. Their voices were so low that even their vampiric hearing could not pick up what the two Enforcers were saying. As they watched, Jean Claude slapped Martin on the back, shaking his head slowly. They both exchanged glances before coming to join the others around the fireplace.

"What was that about love?" Martin asked as he perched upon the arm of Natalie's chair.

"Angele was just saying how lucky I am to have a man who loves me as much as you do," Nat told him. "Now... what *were* you two whispering about over there?"

Instead of an answer from Martin, Jean Claude nervously cleared his throat. Coughing dramatically, he countered, "Why don't I fetch us some drinks? There's no need to bore you all with our boring business." He headed for the kitchen, but Martin stopped him.

"No, Johnny," he said. "It's time the truth came out. I haven't been able to tell her before now. Maybe it will go easier here, among all of you."

"Martin, are you sure?" his cousin asked him.

"Sure of what?" Natalie asked. "Martin, what's going on? What are you talking about?"

Martin looked into her eyes and saw the confusion in them. He knew what he was about to say would hurt her more than anything in the world. The thought of breaking her heart pained him.

"I have to leave for a while, Nat. That's why I've been home, so I could spend time with you. I..." He looked at her and saw that already her heart was breaking. "I have to leave tomorrow night."

"How long?" was all Nat could utter. The others were silent. "How long this time, Martin?" Her voice rose an octave.

"I don't know. A few days, a week, two weeks? As long as it takes, I guess," was Martin's reply. What he wanted to do was hold her, not tell her these things.

"As long as what takes?" Nick interjected.

Martin turned to the rest of family. "I've been chosen for testing. If I pass the tests, I may be offered a position within the High Council. It is a great opportunity," he said.

"One which will take you away from me more often, won't it?" Nat almost screamed the question at him.

Martin looked stricken. Turning to Jean Claude, his face a pale mask of stone, he said, "I can't... I can't go on. *You* explain it to her." With that, he turned and fled form the house.

Part V

After Martin left, Jean Claude found himself confronting the inquiring and angry faces of his family. He didn't know quite what to say at first. How to begin? How could he saw what needed to be said without further complicating matters?

He was saved the trouble of beginning when Natalie broke the nervous silence. "Well?" she snapped through her tears.

"Where do you want me to start?" he asked them.

"The beginning would be nice," Nick told his son. "What is it that Martin can't tell Natalie?"

Jean Claude sighed. He loved his family, but somehow, he didn't think he could make them truly understand what Martin was going through. His father, as far as he knew, didn't yet know that Martin was family. Therefore, he had little reason to be sympathetic. Natalie, for her part, had every right to be upset, as the High Council's latest interest in Martin had left no consideration for her whatsoever. He could just tell that this would be fun.

"Well... this is kind of a difficult thing to say," Jean Claude began at last. He pondered it for a moment. "Let me se if I can explain it to you all this way..." he paused again, trying to gauge their reactions. "People don't change much when they become vampires."

"Change? Martin's going to change?" Nat interrupted wildly.

Sighing again, Jean Claude, answered her, "Perhaps, yes, but please, Natalie, let me finish this." She nodded and he continued. "I didn't change at all. My personality and my values remained pretty much the same." He turned to Angele. "Tell me, my dear," he said to her," do you think that I changed much after I became an Enforcer?"

Angele hesitated for a moment, thinking back to the first time she saw him after he joined the Enforcers. "Yes. I believe you did."

"In what way?" Jean Claude pushed further.

"You were more..." she fished for words and then came up with "... masterful and in charge of your life. There was a power about you and a new determination in your eyes. It was like a tamed fire waiting to be unleashed. It was exciting," Angele finished with a smile.

Jean Claude smiled back at her seductively and blew her a teasing kiss. Then he turned serious. "It was a personality change then. I was no longer the love struck dreamer that I used to be, living in the past because the present had escaped me. I'm different now. Would you all agree to that, those of you who knew me before?"

Slowly Nick and Janette both nodded. "You certainly are more sure of your life," Janette added. Jean Claude smiled slightly at her in response.

"What does this have to do with Martin?" Nat asked, becoming frustrated.

"I was just about to get to that," Jean Claude told her. "I knew Martin before he was a vampire. He didn't really change much from man to vampire, like me-- like us all. However, that meeting was brief, and when I saw Martin again, he had already become an Enforcer. The change in him was radical. He had always been focused and determined. Now, as an Enforcer, he was more cunning about getting what he wanted-- colder, more calculated, and more bitter. So great was the change, that I hardly recognized him as the same man. After we spent some time together, the cold edges began to melt away. The man I once knew slowly began to show himself, but Martin still isn't exactly the same man he used to be. More often than not, he holds himself in reserve. He is a very passionate man; everything about him has an intensity that can't be denied. Sometimes, however, it's hard to get past the cool exterior to find that passion for life."

Natalie was nodding in understanding now. "He can be that way, even to me," she said, her initial anger calming at last.

Jean Claude met Nat's eyes and an unspoken understanding passed between them. Martin had shared his story with Natalie, and she knew what had happened to make him this way. "Then you understand more than you realize, Natalie," Jean Claude said to her. He closed his eyes, trying to focus in on what more he wanted to say. Then he continued, "The testing is nothing. A week or two of them trying to decide if Martin has the right mettle for the job. He'll be back as soon as they are finished with him. After they decide, they'll ask him if he wants the position. If he accepts, it's the training that will change him. Being a member of the High Council is different than what Martin and I have been doing."

"How so?" Nick asked.

"The training will be long and rigorous-- both physically and emotionally challenging. It will last only as long as it takes to mold him into what he needs to become. That could be months, or it could be years," said the young Enforcer.

"Years!?" Nat exclaimed in consternation. "But... when will I get to see him again?"

Jean Claude grimaced. This was the hardest part, and was exactly what Martin could not have born to tell his beloved. "That's just it, Natalie. If Martin accepts a position on the High Council, none of us will see him again... ever."

While Jean Claude uttered the final words on the painful situation, Martin touched down, alone, upon the moor. He had been flying so hard and so fast that he did not really know where he was, but it mattered little to him. The pain in his heart was too great to bear. An anguished cry escaping his throat, he sat down upon damp ground and began to cry. He didn't know what to do, or who to turn to. His family would expect him to stay with Natalie--to choose her over the High Council--and a part of him wanted to, as well. The other part, however, wanted to take up the offer, if it was even offered at all. What was he to do? In the past, he would have taken his troubles to his master, but she was gone now. In back of his mind, however, Martin heard her voice asking him, "What do you want, Martin? What do you desire most?"


"What do you want, Martin? What do you desire most?"

"I.. I don't know, my Mistress," he said to her uncertainly. She'd said that she was testing him, but he didn't understand this test. What answer was she looking for?

Taking his hands between her own, and pressing them gently to her naked breast, she whispered to him, "Yes, Martin, you do know. The answer comes from within your heart. What would make your life complete? What is the answer to your life's dreams?"

He met her eyes for the first time all evening. "Power," he said at last, no longer shy as a new determination took hold of him. "I desire the power that will make me a greater vampire than Lucien LaCroix and my mother's brother."

"Why? Why do you want to impress them? They are nothing to you."

"I don't wish to impress them. I want to destroy them, like they destroyed my mother. I want to be so powerful that they will have to do as I say, and then I will punish them for ruining Mother's life." The intensity in Martin's gaze both surprised and pleased his master. She had known he had what it took to be an Enforcer. Revenge was a powerful thing; it would surely sustain him.

"Is there another reason you desire this power, my young one?" she asked him.

"No. I wish to teach them that they cannot go about dictating people's lives to suit themselves. Just because they are vampires it does not mean that everyone else is their toy. What they did ruined not only my mother's life, but mine, as well. My entire life has been shaped by their thoughtless actions. I will repay them in kind."

Marie reached for her son and drew him into her embrace. Biting into his neck, she felt more than he told her. Using their bond to bring his own hidden emotions to his attention, she asked him again, "Why do you desire this power?"

"To change the way things are," he said, tears in his eyes. "To make sure no one suffers as I have done, or as my family has suffered. If mortals are not to know of us, then the change must come from within."

Then they made love again. Later, as Marie prepared to leave him, she said, "You are strongly determined, Martin. I am sure the Council will approve my decision to give you the power you desire. Have no fear of that."

"I don't believe that becoming an Enforcer will bring me the power I seek. It is a start, but my goal is much higher," Martin told her. "In your blood, my Mistress, I have tasted my destiny."

***End Flashback***

Martin blinked back the blood tears that flowed from his eyes. "What do I do now, Lady Marie?" he asked the specter in his head. "What do I do now?" Then he flew off again.

Part VI

It was nearing sunrise when Martin returned to the house he and Natalie shared. It was dark and silent, and he wondered if she had returned home at all. Entering the bedroom, he found her sprawled across the bed, sobbing violently.

"Natalie," he whispered softly. She rose on her elbows and turned to face him.

"Martin?" she breathed.

"I'm so sorry, Natalie," he said.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked, her voice slightly accusing.

"I wanted to, Nat," whispered Martin. "I tried to, but I couldn't bring myself to hurt you. I'm sorry." He reached for her, but was not surprised when she pulled out of reach of his arms.

"Jean Claude said that if you choose this path, we will never see each other again. Is this true?" Her voice was cold, her features hard.

"Yes. If I join the High Council, my training alone will strip away my connection with the outside world. In time, after I have become acclimated to my new life, I will be able to see Jean Claude again, if I so desire."

"Why him and not me?"

"Jean Claude is an Enforcer. As they are two branches of the same organization, the High Council depends upon the Enforcers. We are their only connection to the outside world. You, Natalie, are not an Enforcer, and even if you had the years required to join, you would not be allowed to do so." It hurt Martin to say this, but the time had passed for keeping secrets.

"Why not?" she asked.

"Because of who you were in Toronto... because of your association with de Brabant while he searched for a cure, there are many important people who do not trust you. Many believed that you should never have been brought across."

"Well, it isn't as if they could have stopped it!" Nat said indignantly.

"No, they couldn't have stopped it, Natalie, but had they wanted to, they could have killed you. You are still young enough to be killed easily, and there are many who still question the wisdom in your continued existence," Martin replied grimly.

The fire was suddenly extinguished from Nat's eyes. "So..." her voice was soft and sad, "... just because someone doesn't trust me, I will never see you again?"

This time, she allowed him to gather her up in his arms. Stroking her hair, Martin whispered, "I haven't said "yes" yet, my dear. Do not cry now, as none of this has come to pass tonight." His lips brushed her forehead lightly.

"Will you accept their offer, Martin? Will you leave me?" she asked, but got no answer. Instead, Martin held her tighter, rocking them both back and forth upon the bed.

Nick found Jean Claude in the kitchen late in the afternoon. Janette and Angele were still asleep, so they were alone.

"My son, I have to speak with you. There is something I must know," said Nick.

"Yes, Father? What is that?"

"Why are you so close to Martin Cross? You said that you knew him before he was a vampire, and the two of you seem so close-- like family, almost. Why did you side with him last night, Jean Claude?" Nick asked.

Jean Claude sighed, and pouring two wine glasses of blood, motioned for his father to sit down with him at the table. When they were seated, he said, "Father, it is time that you knew what the rest of the family knows. Martin, he is our family, too. He is Fleur's son."

"What? Andre?" Nick was baffled by this. "But how?"

"No, father, not Andre. Aunt Fleur had another child, a son born years before Andre, in the first year of her marriage. She lost many sons between this first one and young Andre. When she died, he was already apprenticed to a potter in another town. Andre never spoke of him. Even I knew nothing until he came to live with us."

"I don't understand this. How could it be? I would have known if Fleur had another son," Nick protested.

"No, father, you couldn't have. Aunt Fleur made sure his existence was hidden from you... from us all..."

***Flashback*** "What are you saying, Andre?" Jean Claude asked the young man with him. "Who is this man?"

Andre looked from the ragged-looking man to his guardian. "C'est Martine. C'est mon frere," he insisted.

"Your brother? How came you to have a brother?" Jean Claude asked the boy. He had no reason to believe that this vagabond was any relation of his.

"Andre," said the new-comer, "let me speak to our cousin alone. When I have had my say, he will understand." The boy nodded mutely. "That's a good lad. Now, please take my wife into the kitchen to sit by the fire. We have traveled a long way and, she is weary."

When they had gone, Jean Claude turned to the stranger. "Now that the boy is gone, tell me who you *really* are," he demanded.

"No," the stranger said. "You tell me first how Uncle Nicolas is faring in his new life. Does he still enjoy being what you are, Cousin? Does he enjoy being a vampire?"

"How did you know that!?" Jean Claude yelled as he grabbed the man by the neck. The man shoved a cross in Jean Claude's face and was promptly released.

"I know this because I am Andre's brother, Martine son of Fleur."

"How can that be?" Jean Claude asked.

"I was born first. Mother bore many children between Andre and myself, but none of them lived. I was sent away to be the apprentice to a potter. I was to earn my keep and learn a trade. Now I have returned."

"Why should I believe you?" Jean Claude asked.

"How else would I know about Uncle Nicolas's affliction. My mother told me about it."

"Father made her forget," Jean Claude countered.

"He did a poor job," Martine replied.

***End Flashback***

"And so, I welcomed Martin and his young wife into our home," Jean Claude concluded. "He knew things about Aunt Fleur and our family that only her son could have known."

"How was it that he knew about us? About vampires?" Nick asked his son.

Jean Claude continued the story. "When they first came to us, his wife was obviously with child. Whether they belonged to our family or not, she could not travel further in her condition. She had the child, a girl, some weeks after their arrival. Martin set up a potter's shop in town and apprenticed Andre. His wife looked after the child and kept the house neat. I ran the estate, as you wished of me. Three years passed before Martin dared to approach me about LaCroix. At first, he asked only where you were, but after he had questioned me several times, I asked him what he really wanted. He told me the saddest story."

"Which was?"

"His father was a cruel, heartless man, who did not love Aunt Fleur. The marriage was arranged, and she had no choice in the matter. On their wedding night, he took her through violence. Aunt Fleur escaped within her mind to try and endure the pain and humiliation of it. Her mind's flight re-awakened old memories that had been long hidden from her. Memories of her brother's companion-- a man who loved her with a tenderness that her monster of a husband could not. She remembered her love for LaCroix, Father."

Nick had gone pale. "Oh my Fleur... my dearest sister." He looked to Jean Claude. "It was I who helped Mother arrange the marriage. Father was dead, and the family needed stability." He was stunned, and felt a sudden shame that he had never felt before.

"Aunt Fleur never blamed you. In her eyes, you could not have known what her husband would be like. But Martin did. According to him, his father knew that Fleur harbored a great love for another, though she would say not who it was. Because of this, he beat her often. It was these beatings that caused her to lose the other children. Although she never slept with any other but him, her husband convinced himself that each child was another man's, and so he would beat her to kill it. The only time he was certain the child was his own was the night he raped her again, and Andre was conceived."

"Oh, Fleur!" Nick cried out sorrowfully.

Jean Claude continued. "Fleur confided a lot in her oldest son. He knew about you and LaCroix, and he knew about vampires. His father came to resent him, and sent him away to be apprenticed mostly to get him out of the way. Before he left, Fleur made Martin promise that when she died, he would find Lucien LaCroix and tell him that she had died loving only him."

"Has he done so?" Nick asked.

"No, he has not."

"Why not?"

"After Martin told me all of this, he asked me again to reveal where you were. He believed that LaCroix would be with you. I knew that LaCroix would not take to him kindly. I believed that LaCroix would hate him because he was another man's son and would kill him for it. So, I would not tell him where to find you."

"Very wise. LaCroix never really got over losing Fleur," Nick commented.

Jean Claude continued. "Martin became angry with me and left, saying that he would find you both without my help. Occasionally, he would send letters to his wife. After 5 years, he returned without having found you. He stayed with us for several months, borrowed money from me, and then left again. He did not return. Years had passed, and the Church declared him dead. I petitioned for Andre's right to marry Martin's widow, Claire. She now had two children by Martin and needed someone to provide for her. She and Andre had a strong affection for each other, and Andre was a man by then. Many years after they were married, and long after we had given up on Martin ever returning, he did return. He was a vampire by then, though he would not tell me how it had happened. He met me in private, and together we decided that it was best that he should remain dead. He was happy that Claire and Andre had found love with each other. Since then, his chosen path has led him further from that which he had left home on. Martin once told me that when the time was right, he would tell LaCroix that his mother had loved him, even on her death bed. I believe that he will someday, but it is his decision to make."

Part VII

Naked, save for a white, silken robe, Martin sat upon the huge bed that dominated the room he had lived in for the past week. It was a cold, cheerless room with bare, white walls and no apparent door. More than anything, he longed for this testing to be over, so that he could be returned to Natalie

Natalie... Martin sighed as he thought of her warm, beautiful eyes. In just a few days, it would be their anniversary, and they would most likely spend it apart. How was she holding up, he wondered? Did she miss him? Was she angry?

As he pondered these things, Kisha appeared in the room as if by magic. Martin had often wondered how she did it, but today he was too sad to bother with the thought.

Aren't you going to greet me, Martin? she asked, her voice sounding loudly in his head. A few days ago, Kisha had told him that they would be required to communicate mentally in order to form a bond between them. The bond, she'd said, was necessary to determine what training he would need.

I'm sorry, Kisha, he replied. I was just thinking of Natalie. I miss her.

No doubt you wish to return to her, yes? she asked.

Yes. How long will this continue?

Kisha eyed him closely and sidled up to the bed. Sitting down upon it and sliding her body close to his, she replied, It will only continue for as long it takes. You think only of yourself, Martin. You wish to be through with the testing and return to your *lady*, but you do not aid me in the test. It requires an intimacy that we are not achieving at this time. She placed a hand on his bare thigh and watched him jerk away from her. You see? It is your resistance that makes this drag out so long. If you would give yourself to me, you would be with your woman by nightfall tomorrow... or perhaps the next day.

Martin stood and moved away from the bed. He knew that physical intimacy was a part of the testing. Lady Marie had explained to him that in their love-making she had been privy to his inner-most thoughts and desires. It was like opening a window to his very soul. It had been different then, however. He and Marie had been lovers once before and had become lovers again after his training. Martin felt no such closeness for Kisha. She was breath-takingly beautiful, it was true, but she was not the woman for him. Her confident, I'm-in-control-here attitude did nothing to stir his heart the way Natalie's subtle grace did. In short, he could not see himself with Kisha.

Kisha sensed the turmoil within him. She knew he wanted to be tested-- wanted the power of the High Council--but his loyalty to Natalie Lambert kept him from reaching for it. Martin...

He turned to face her and noticed for the first time the ensemble she wore. It was a white, silk kilt that hung low on her hips and opened in a slit down the front. She wore nothing underneath. The top was a diaphanous veil through which he could see the perfect shape of her breasts. She'd come here to seduce him again. Each time she came, she came wearing less and less clothing, and each time, Martin had rejected her. This time, however, her whispered promise echoed in his mind. If you would give yourself to me, you would be with your woman by nightfall...

He closed his eyes, trying to fight off the sudden weakening of his defenses, and a vision of Natalie entered his mind. Her innocent, trusting face drove away the impure thoughts that had entered his mind. No, Kisha, he told her. I cannot do it.

Kisha rose from the bed and came up behind Martin. Wrapping her arms around him and pulling him to her so that his back pressed against her chest, she told him, I admire your loyalty, Martin Cross, but consider this... the longer this takes, the more time Natalie has to resent you. She may hate you by the time you return. It would be easier to give in to me, so that you may return to her before she finds another to replace you. Think on it, Martin.

Then Kisha was gone, leaving Martin alone with his thoughts of Natalie. He threw himself upon the bed and fell asleep, only to dream of her arms around him.

Kisha stormed into the room where Raoul, her only created son, sat monitoring Martin from a hidden camera. "Why won't he give in to me?" she fumed.

"He is very loyal to his lady, Mistress Kisha," Raoul responded to her angry storm with a surprising calm. "However, I believe he is weakening. He is, after all, a man, and men are weak creatures by nature. I believe I know a way that he can be yours for the taking."

"What way is that, Raoul?" Kisha demanded.

"Look here." Raoul tapped the screen where they could both see Martin asleep upon the bed. "Cross is a man of great emotion. He *feels* things, my Mistress. This is the reason he does not trust you, because he believes that you have no emotion in you. Think of his lady-- she is a gentle, sensitive thing. You are not. You are bold and forceful. Strong. Perhaps if my Mistress were to show Martin that she has the woman's sensitivities, he would soften towards her?"

Kisha's eyes narrowed. Her son was a genius. "Play upon his sympathies, you mean? Show myself to be weak-- hiding my sorrows beneath a mask of stone?"

"Yes, my Mistress. It was Natalie Lambert's helplessness that drew him to her. The same could be true for you."


Natalie curled tightly into a ball beneath the blankets of the bed she and Martin had once shared. She could hear Nick calling to her from behind the door but did not want to answer him. "Go away!" she called out when Nick pounded on the door and called her name once again. "I'm not coming!"

"Natalie!" It was Angele, and she sounded genuinely concerned. "Please come with us, Nat. You need to get out of the house tonight."

Tonight was the night she and Martin should have been celebrating the twenty-ninth anniversary of their life together. Instead, Nick and Janette had invited her to join them and Angele to go to the theatre. She'd accepted. Right now, however, all she wanted to do was curl up and die.

"No!" she replied to Angele. "I've changed my mind. I don't want to go."

"But, Natalie!" Angele's voice held a note of despair. "You simply *must* go! It's Marius's new play we're seeing. I can't see him again without support."

"Jean Claude will be there, won't he?" Nat asked, pulling the blankets away from her head and staring at the door, waiting for an answer.

"He had to work, Nat," replied Nick. "Say you'll come. We have time to wait for you to get ready."

"Please, Natalie!" Angele urged, again sounding desperate. It was the urgency in her voice which won Natalie over.

"Oh, all right!" she sighed, throwing the blankets off of her body. "I'll be right out."

On their anniversary, Martin sat on the huge, lonely bed fantasizing about what he and Natalie could have been doing. He imagined surprising her with long-stemmed red roses and poetry by the fire in their living room. Or an evening of dancing under the stars in some remote and secluded location, with the music of their loving hearts to move them. When their bodies finished swaying to the tempo of their own desire, he would bend his head towards hers and kiss her with all the love he felt for her. Then they would make love under the stars and return home just before daybreak.

Martin sighed deeply, imagining what it would be like to carry her into the bedroom, place her gently upon the bed and then ravish her beautiful body. He missed her tonight with a passion that bordered on violence.

He was so engrossed in his fantasizing that he did not sense Kisha when she entered the room, or when she greeted him mentally.

"Martin," she said aloud, breaking into his thoughts.

Martin turned towards her voice, expecting and almost anticipating her to be in some state of undress. Indeed, if truth be known, any of her slinky outfits would have satisfied the hungry for sexual release he felt at this moment. However, the sight that met his eyes was shocking in its plainness. Instead of her usual see-through, silky coverings, Kisha wore a white tee-shirt and a pair of denim jeans.

He stared at her for a while and then said, "I thought we were supposed to be using our powers of telepathy to communicate?"

"We were," she replied, "but you didn't seem to hear me when I came in. Where were you just now, may I ask? Or, am I correct in assuming it was Natalie you were thinking about?"

"It was. I... I miss her. Tonight is our anniversary, and I should have been there."

"I'm so sorry, Martin. This must be hard for you, then."

Martin studied her for a moment, unsure of what to say or do. For sometime now, even before he knew he was being considered to replace Lady Marie in the High Council, Kisha had been making advances toward him. She had made it more than clear that she thought Natalie was not worthy of his love *and* that she--Kisha, daughter of some un-remembered pharaoh--was. Tonight, however, Kisha was lacking in her previous allure and sex appeal. In her faded jeans and un-adorned shirt, she seemed more like a regular, common person.

"Yes, it is," he confided at last.

"Would you like to talk about it?" she asked him. "Sometimes talking helps to ease the pain."

Martin hesitated momentarily. He didn't know how to take this sudden change in Kisha's character. Was it real, or was it just a ruse to wear him down even further? Looking into her eyes, however, he saw a genuine emotion he had never seen before.

"Actually, no," he admitted. "It hurts me to think of it right now. What I *would* be interested in discussing, however, is you." When she threw him a quizzical glance, he elaborated. "I know very little about you, Kisha. I know you are one of the oldest of our kind and that you are Egyptian by birth, but that is all I know. Who *were* you, Kisha, before you became as you are now?"

Kisha laughed musically. "That is a tall order, Martine son of Fleur. We would be here all night before we even came to the story of my coming across. Are you sure you want to hear it all?"

"Yes, I do. If you are to be my tester and trainer, then I must know you as well as you know me."

"Very well, then," Kisha agreed as she sat down on the bed beside him.

For the first time in two weeks, Martin did not feel nervous around her or feel that he should keep his guard up. For the first time since he left home, he let himself relax.

Janette turned her eyes away from the stage where Marius was performing in his latest theatrical masterpiece and noticed Nick's eyes upon her. She started to smile at him, but stopped as it became evident that it was not her but Natalie, seated beside her, whom Nick was gazing so intently at. Natalie had been silent since the play began. At times, however, Janette had been aware of her silent tears and the sadness which radiated from her.

"Is Nat okay?" Nick whispered into her ear. Janette shook her head and gave a slight shrug to indicated that she did not know. Nick leaned forward across her body and said in a hushed voice, "Nat? Are you okay?"

Nat turned to look at them, and even Janette could feel her sorrow. "Yes, Nick. I--" Nat started to say, her voice choking. She paused to wipe away a tear. "No," she admitted in sad whisper.

Nick looked from Janette to Natalie and then back to Janette. His eyes met those of his daughter, and a silent understanding passed between them. Janette nodded slowly, and Nick smiled at her weakly before turning to Angele, who was seated next to him on the other side. "Nat's not doing too well, Angele." he said into her ear. "Marius's play is good, of course, but I think the plot hits too close to home. I'm going to take her home." Angele glanced across the row and saw Natalie crying.

She nodded. "Mother and I will be fine here by ourselves. Go."

Nick stood, and taking Nat's hand, led her out of the crowded theatre. Once outside, Nat hugged him tightly. "Thanks, Nick," she said through her tears. "I don't know how much more of that I could have taken."

"Well," Nick said sheepishly. "We should have known better than to bring you to see Marius's play. He's been hooked on cheating themes for quite some time now." He smiled at her and took her hand as they began to walk off into the night.

Part IX

Martin laughed heartily. He'd never imagined that Kisha could be so entertaining. He'd always seen her as a seductress and had never equated her with any normal, endearing qualities. Here, however, they spent the entire night laughing and sharing stories about what life was like when they were both mortal-- enjoying each other's company and not thinking about anything physical.

"You still haven't told me about how you came across," he accused as he reached for the bloodwine that she had brought with her and poured them both fresh glasses.

Kisha emptied hers quickly and looked away thoughtfully. "Do you really want to know?"

"Yes, I said I did," he replied.

She smiled weakly at him as she began to speak. "It was a very long time ago, and yet, I remember it as if it were yesterday. My mother was one of Pharaoh's many wives. One of his favorites, and because of this, she and her children led happy lives. We wanted for nothing; we had the best food, the finest clothing in all the world, and riches beyond imagination. I had guards and servants, people to cook for me and dress me and play music for me. There were people to sing to me, talk to me, and walk behind me wherever I went. I had never known any other life. All of that changed for me, however, one evening as I prepared for sleep. At that same hour, the guards were preparing to changes shifts. Two of them came in just as I began to step out of the gold pool that was in my private chambers. They did not belong there. One of them grabbed me and forced me back into the water. My head went under, and he held me there while the other...The other forced himself upon me." She paused, a sob escaping her as she remembered it. Martin almost told her to stop, but did not. "They both raped me this way. I was under the water for so long that I nearly drowned. Indeed, they believed me dead and left me there when they were finished. I went and told my mother and expected her to inform Pharaoh of what had happened. Surely he would never allow his daughter to be treated thusly. But she never told him, Martin. Never. Of course, I did not know this until later... until the child began to show. Mother hid me away from the rest of the family-- Pharaoh's other wives and their children. One day, Pharaoh wished to have all of his wives and children gathered together, so that he could choose one of his daughters to offer in marriage to a neighboring ruler. Such a marriage would bring a peace between two warring nations. He *had* envisioned me for the position. When he saw me, however, he knew that it could not be so, and he was angry. He demanded to know what had happened, and my brother told him about the two guards." She sobbed again in anguish as her memories surged to the forefront of her mind. "He sent me back to my chambers and confined me to them. My brothers begged for the right to punish the men who had deflowered their sister. Pharaoh granted them their request, and I learned later that the two guards had been brutally murdered. Pharaoh sent for healing men and priests, who mixed concoctions that would kill the baby in my womb. They forced me to drink them, and I became very ill. When I recovered, I had lost the child, but had also lost the ability to ever give birth. It was then that Pharaoh decided to sell me into slavery. I was still beautiful, and perhaps some man would take me as his concubine. Otherwise, I would be destined to life a drudgery and servitude. One night, as I was traveling with a slavers caravan, a plague descended upon our camp. Night after night, people would mysteriously vanish. Some would be found the next day, miles off. They would be dead, drained of all their blood. More still were never found. Then one night, a tall man came into the tent I shared with the other women. I watched in horror as he killed each of the women in the tent. It was vicious and brutal, but even as I watched, I began to wish he would come to kill me. Death was a welcome alternative to slavery. He did not kill me, however. He drank from me, to be sure, but when he was finished, I lived. I lived, Martin, and such a life it was! So different from any mortal existence. Later, he told me that he had spared me because of the life I had lead, because my life had more meaning than those pitiful others he had killed."

She fell silent now, tears openly streaming down her cheeks. Martin had unconsciously put an arm around her and was holding her tightly. When he looked down at her their eyes met in silent communication. He saw in the depths of her eyes a naked fear that had been, no doubt, caused by the memories her story had unearthed from the grave in which she had buried them. Concern touched his heart.

As her tears continued to fall, he held her, rocking gently upon the bed until she was silent and still. Then his finger caught the single tear which trailed down her cheek and wiped it away in a soft caress. Another tear fell, unbidden, from her eye. Martin bent towards her to kiss it away. Somehow, in the whirl of emotional turmoil, their lips met.

The kiss was soft and brief. Martin pulled away, unsure. He felt a strange disconnection from his mind, and his heart ached longingly-- but for what, he knew not at that moment. He looked at her and saw the same shocked expression on her face, mixed also with a hesitant desire. He wanted to kiss her again, he realized. All logic aside, it would be easy to reach out, pull her into his arms, and--

Suddenly she was in his arms again. This time, the kiss they shared was pure fire, and it lasted and lasted until normal people would have long ago died from a lack of oxygen. Crushing her body hard against him, his body thrilled momentarily. She wasn't wearing anything beneath the white tee-shirt. The kiss continued as each explored the other with their hands, and Kisha slowly untied the white robe which, hitherto, Martin had kept tightly secured.

Nick awoke early in the evening with a crick in his neck. He had fallen asleep on the couch, Natalie snuggled into his arms. She'd fallen asleep crying, and he hadn't the heart to wake her so he could stretch. Nat's head was buried against his chest. Nick smoothed the reddish strands with his fingers, once again admiring their softness. Despite everything, he still cared deeply for her, and it pained him to think that Martin could hurt her so badly.

Tilting his head downward to kiss her hair in a comforting way, Nick inhaled deeply. It was amazing. Natalie's hair still smelled like it had when she was mortal-- the scent a mixture of sunlight and goodness. How was it possible? He'd thought surely that becoming a vampire would rob her of that smell-- that the years of darkness would cause the sunshine in her hair to grow stale and fade away and her heart to grow cold. They hadn't.

He kissed her hair again, inhaling even more deeply to enjoy her scent, and she awoke. Looking up at him, the memory of the horrible night flooded back to her and tears gathered in her eyes. Nick kissed those eyes, wiping away the blood tears with his lips. Instantly, his mind was assaulted by a myriad of clashing emotions. Most concerned him, Nat and Martin. She too, it seemed, still cared for him. Her love for Martin was deep, but her heart was in doubt.

Suddenly, Nick found himself caught up in old memories and emotions-- remembering a time when he would have loved to know the extent of her love for him. He gathered her into his arms and leaned down to kiss her lips tenderly.

They separated, both feeling confused and emotionally exhausted.

"Nick, I..." Nat began after an awkward silence.

"I'm sorry," Nick blurted out before she could finish, however. "I'm sorry, Nat. I don't know what came over me."

"*I'm* the one who let you kiss me, Nick. I could have pushed you away," she snapped at him. Then she sighed, her anger fading when she realized it was mostly herself she was irritated with.

Nick looked down at the floor for a while. "I guess we both still have some unresolved feelings, huh?" he said, still without looking at her.

"Yeah, I guess," Nick's formed doctor replied. "But I can't act on them, Nick. I love Martin now."

"And I *love* Janette, Nat. I don't want to lose her... ever. I think we just.." He paused, debating his choice of words. As he did, he turned back to her. "You were just so helpless, Nat. It seemed like you needed to be kissed."

"Maybe I did. Maybe I needed to know that I was still attractive in someone else's eyes."

"I wish that someone could have been Martin," Nick told her sadly.

"Me too, Nick. Me too."

Part X

Martin awoke with the vague awareness that he had fallen asleep holding a woman in his arms, but now the bed was empty, save for himself. Sitting up, he opened his eyes and rubbed the bleariness from them. The glare of the all-white decor reminded him somewhat painfully of where he was... and of what he had done.

He'd slept with Kisha. Even allowing his mind to give thought to it caused him feel an overwhelming sense of shame. How had it happened? She meant nothing to him, and yet, he had been unable to control himself.

Their love scene replayed itself in his mind, and for a moment, Martin could still feel the fuzzy, floating sensation he had felt when he'd taken Kisha into his arms. It hadn't felt real; it had been like a dream. Only... it hadn't been a dream. It was all too real.

He remembered sharing blood with her-- taking her blood into him and allowing her to have his own. Her blood was a cocktail of the things she had told and a power which he could not begin to describe. It was rich, full, and intoxicating. Martin had been overwhelmed by it as he drank. It reminded him of his own master's blood the night she tested him before bringing him to the Enforcers, except for one thing: there was no love for him in Kisha's blood.

She desired him, that he knew. Desire, however, was not the same as love. Lady Marie had once explained to him that love was of no consequence to the members of the High Council. Sexual relations were all part and parcel of the Council's politics and nothing more. Politics. You share yourself with many people, Martin, for many different reasons. Political favors, backing for a project, a higher seat in the Council, and power. Everything revolves around power in Council. When we share blood with another during the course of sex, it heightens the powers of both parties, she'd told him. Sex isn't for love; it is for control.

Martin was still frowning over the memory of Marie's words when Kisha arrived in the room. This time, however, she had not appeared as if by magic. She had entered through a door-- a door Martin was sure hadn't been there before.

"Oh, good! You're awake finally!" Kisha said with a smile. She sat down beside him on the bed.

"Finally?" he echoed, taking the glass of bloodwine she held out to him in offering.

"You've been asleep for nearly three days, Martin," she explained, laughing slightly. "You..." she paused, eyeing him closely. "... underwent some very demanding tests the other night. Don't you remember what happened after we...?" Her voice trailed off as she touched his bare chest pointedly.

At her words, Martin's mind was flooded with memories of the deep and painful mental testing he had endured. When he'd first awoke, he'd shrugged off some of these memories as parts of his dreams, but now he saw them for what they were. When they'd shared blood, Kisha had been able to enter his mind and control it. She'd bombarded his senses with a wide range of emotions and sensations, waiting to see how he'd react. When he'd finally fallen asleep, he had been exhausted.

"I see that you do remember. This is good, for there is much we must accomplish today," she told him.

"Why today?"

"Because you are awake now... and because after we are finished with you tonight, you may go home. Your testing is at an end, Martin." Without warning, she grabbed him and bit roughly into his neck. As she drank his blood, Martin found himself drained of all will-power and strength. His eyes closed upon the bright whiteness of the room.

After hours of exhausting tests, Martin was finally free to return home. Home, he thought forlornly as he removed the white robe and began to dress in his own clothing. Natalie... He didn't want to see her just yet. The guilt he felt was still fresh and very unbearable. If he went home to her tonight, he knew would never be able to look her in the eyes.

Instead, he went to Jean Claude. Jean Claude would, no doubt, be happy to give him a place to crash without asking too many questions. Besides, Jean's Claude's house was closer, and Martin was extremely tired. So tired, in fact, that he all but crash-landed on Jean Claude's door step. Pushing the doorbell, he slumped wearily against the door post and waited.

His cousin opened the door, just in time to catch Martin as he slumped forward into his arms.

"Martin!" Jean Claude exclaimed in surprise.

The weakened Enforcer opened his eyes and gazed blearily at the other. "Tired, Johnny," he managed with a half-hearted smile before collapsing completely.

Part XI

Several days had passed since Martin had returned from being tested and still no one knew what had happened to him. He'd been quiet, almost reticent, since his return. Not to mention insanely hungry. Normally, Martin contented himself with the bloodwine that could be had through suppliers. When he'd first awakened, however, the bottled blood seemed tired and dead to him. His stomach ached for something fresh and warm. For the first few days, he could not squelch the desire to take a human in his arms and feel the life draining into his mouth.

After awhile, that ache faded away, leaving Martin feeling somewhat empty but whole once again.

"It was a result of the testing, Johnny," he told Jean Claude one day as they sat in his office at the Enforcer Headquarters. "Or... maybe that itself was another test... to see what I would do when faced with the desire to kill rampantly."

Jean Claude shrugged. "It's possible." He studied his cousin closely and then asked, "How's Natalie? She must be pretty thrilled that you're home."

There was a long silence, and Martin heaved a sigh of frustration. Jean Claude nodded slowly. "You haven't been home yet, have you?" he accused.

"No, I have not. I can't, Johnny."

"Why not? Martin, she's been pining away for you all this time. Why haven't you seen her?"

Another silence ensued. Martin gazed with longing at the picture of Natalie on his desk, and a tear slid from his eyes.

"I... I have been... unfaithful to her, Johnny," he said at last, his voice trembling with unarticulated sobs.

The other Enforcer stared at him in astonishment. "Come again? I just thought I heard you say you'd cheated on Natalie. You! That's impossible!"

"No, it isn't impossible." Martin picked up the picture and touched Natalie's face with his fingertips. "Kisha was my tester, Johnny, and part of the test was seduction. She seduced me, and I gave in to her... " He stared down at Nat's glowing, happy face and began to cry harder. "... on our anniversary." Through his tears, Martin began to recount what had happened in the white, doorless room he'd been in for so long. When he finished, Jean Claude was silent. "You see, I cheated on her. I don't deserve her love."

"No," Jean Claude said at last. "That's not true, Martin, and you know it. You and I both know what sex means here. It's the purest way to test one's strengths and weaknesses-- when your emotions are raw. Martin... cousin... what happened in that room was not an affair of the heart. It was all a part of the test. Unless..." Jean Claude paused as he thought of the sexy, seductive Egyptian vampire. "Did it mean anything to you?"

"No," his cousin admitted. "I felt... fuzzy, as if I was outside myself and someone else was inside my head, making me do it."

"There, you see? It meant nothing."

"Natalie's not going to see it that way, Johnny. If she ever finds out, she'll hate me forever."

"Don't tell her."

Martin started at his cousin in disbelief. "It's as simple as that, Jean Claude? I think she'll know something is wrong if I refuse to share blood with her all of a sudden."

"I didn't mean that. Look... Nat's only a couple of decades old here, Martin. We're both older than she is. Hide it from her. Don't allow the memory to seep into your blood while you're with her. You *can* repress things, can't you?"

"Yes," Martin replied in defeat. "Yes, I can."

"Martin!" Natalie exclaimed joyously when she saw him standing in the doorway. She rushed to him, throwing her arms around him.

Martin felt his own arms tighten around her. Surprisingly, being so near to her felt right. Her body against his seemed to purge his soul of the guilt he had been feeling. Kissing her deeply, he reveled in the love she projected at him, enjoying the warmth of it.

"Oh, Martin! I've missed you so," she said as they separated.

"And I you, my dearest Natalie," he said as he led her to the couch. In that moment, as he looked into her joyful eyes, he knew he could never tell her what had happened between Kisha and himself. Kissing her again, he drew her against him and held her in his arms.

"Tell me about it, Martin," she asked him. "What did they do to you?"

"Ahhh, Natalie," he replied smoothly, kissing her hair as he spoke, "I do not wish to be reminded of it tonight. I want only to hold you."

She accepted his words and snuggled deeper into his embrace.

Part XII

Janette gazed at Natalie with a small spark of jealousy. Natalie Lambert once again had everyone's attention. First it had been "poor Natalie," and "dear, sweet, lonely Natalie." Now it was "Oh! Look how happy she is!" Martin had finally returned, and they were sickeningly in love.

Tonight, the family had decided to celebrate Natalie's happiness by going out for the evening. They'd chosen a restaurant which, although a predominantly mortal establishment, catered to the vampire community as well. This was how Janette found herself sipping bloodwine and watching Martin and his lady love float across the dance floor.

"They look happy, don't they, Janette?" Nick commented, breaking into her reverie.

"Oui, Nicolas. They seem happy."

"You don't." Nick took her hand in his own. "What's wrong?"

She met his eyes briefly, then looked away. "C'est rien."

"No," he told her. "I think there is something. What is it? Have I done something to upset you?"

Had he? Did he even have to ask? Like everyone else, Nicolas had been so concerned with Natalie's happiness and well-being that he had routinely ignored her.

"No, Nicolas. You have done nothing. I think, peut-etre, that is part of the problem." So saying, Janette rose from her seat and pushed her way through the crowd to the door.

Nick watched her leave, realizing only too late what Janette had meant. He hadn't been very attentive to her lately, and he knew that now. Since their arrival in England, he had resumed his position as Natalie's protector and ignored his duty to Janette. Of course, he'd told himself that it was proper, what he'd been doing. Natalie was his sister--LaCroix's child--and with LaCroix gone, someone had to look after her. At least, that was what he'd told himself in the beginning. There was also that night at the theatre and the kiss that had followed it to consider. Nick felt anger at himself for allowing things to go so far off course. This was not what he'd come to England for at all.

A fear suddenly took him, grasping at his heart with urgency. What if Janette decided to leave him now, because of his stupidity? What would he do without her? I have to find her! he thought as he, too, sprang from his chair and raced from the restaurant.

He caught up with Janette back at Jean Claude and Angele's flat. She was in their bedroom, throwing her clothes in to a suitcase on the bed. Her actions were hurried and angry, each movement emanating bitter energy.

"Janette," he said quietly, stepping inside the doorway. She whirled to face him, eyes flashing with anger.

"Go away, Nicolas. Go back to your precious Natalie." She spit the words at him in spite.

"No, I wish to stay here, with you."

"Then you will be staying here alone. I am leaving. I am going home. Tonight." She turned back to her packing, snapping closed the first suitcase and hurling it onto the floor. She then grabbed another and threw it open upon the bed.

Nick stepped closer, and putting his arms around her, stopped her from continuing her task. "Don't do this, Janette. Please don't throw our love away now." His voice was low, nearly a whisper, as his words brushed across her hair.

"It is not I who has thrown it away, Nicolas. You have," she told him. Her voice cracked slightly with the sound of tears.

"I have been blind, it is true, but only to your pain. I have not stopped loving you," Nick told her.

"How can I believe that?" she asked him.

Nick turned Janette to face him, and, tilting her face up to his, whispered, "Believe..." Their lips met in a tender kiss, and her arms folded around him instinctively.

The kiss continued, growing in passion and desire as each minute passed. When at last they separated, there could be no doubt as to the extent of Nick's love for her.

Nick looked down at the suitcase on the bed and frowned. "How can I make love to you with that thing on the bed?" he asked her, a smile playing across his lips.

"I don't know," replied Janette. "Perhaps we should move it out of the way?" She began to pull it from the bed.

Nick lay awake, watching the love of his life as she dozed in his arms. He'd nearly lost her tonight, he realized. It was time he made sure that would never happen again. Tomorrow night, he vowed, he would place his petition with the Enforcers. He would not leave England without once again being joined with Janette. And this time, it *would* be forever.


Jean Claude glanced at Martin nervously as they waited outside the High Council's chamber. This was where all the important decisions were made. "I don't like it, Martin. Not one bit. I wonder what they want from us."

"It's probably nothing, Johnny. They probably have a job for us to do, that all," his cousin replied calmly. "I'm not worried about it."

"It had better be a really important job to involve dragging us both before the Council," Jean Claude muttered.

Before Martin could comment, the door opened and Kisha sauntered out. As usual, she was half-naked-- wearing only a white bikini top and a flowing skirt the touched the floor. Her feet were bare.

"Good evening, Martin," she breathed as she pressed herself against him. Martin stiffened under her touch and jerked away. A frown appeared on his face now.

"You're so cold tonight, lover," she commented. "Why ever is that?"

"Why have we been summoned, Kisha?" he demanded of her.

She laughed. "You'll find out soon enough," she said as she led them inside the chamber. The door swung shut behind them as if by magic.

Kisha led them down a long corridor and into the private chambers of the High Council. Martin and Jean Claude recognized a few of the vampires seated before them-- among them, Edgar. Edgar waved a hand to two empty seats at the circular table.

"Please be seated, gentlemen," he offered. As they began to sit, he ushered Martin into a chair beside him. It had been Lady Marie's. "You've practically earned this seat, Martin my boy," he said.

"Why are we here?" Martin demanded again.

While the other members of the High Council frowned at Martin's straightforward demand, Edgar burst into merry laughter. "Oh, my boy, your Mistress was right about you. She'd have been proud to see you take on this room," he chuckled.

"I'm glad you approve of me," Martin said sarcastically. "But that still doesn't explain why we are here at all."

Edgar cleared his throat now, suddenly losing his merriment. "I've a petition here that might be of some interest to you boys." He handed the document over to Martin, who read it and promptly turned pale.

"Are you serious?" he asked. "Is *he* serious?"

Jean Claude looked between the two vampires curiously. "What?" he asked. Martin pushed the papers across the table to his cousin.

"See for yourself, Johnny. You won't believe it either."

Jean Claude perused the petition eagerly, but soon dropped it, a look of shock on his face. He met Martin's eyes and shook his head in disbelief. "Father wants to wed Janette-- again," he uttered.

"I told you you wouldn't believe it," Martin shot back.

"But why? Father knows it isn't to be allowed. After the last time.. " Jean Claude's voice trailed off as he gazed at the vampires around him. They were all intently watching Martin and himself. He began to grow suspicious. "Why are *we* here? You're not seriously considering this, are you?" he asked them.

"You don't want your father to be happy, Jean Claude?" Edgar asked. The others murmured in agreement.

"Of course I do! But this goes against tradition and policy. My father gave up his privileges when he went off on the cure kick of his. That's common knowledge," he shot back at Edgar. "Why would the Council go against its own rules for him now?"

Here another vampire rose from his seat. "You raise some interesting points, my friend. Ones that I can assure you we have also considered. Which is why we have asked for the two of you to help us with this decision. Do you think that your father, now that he has rejoined us, deserves this priviledge?"

"My personal opinion or a professional one?"

"Personal," was the reply.

"He's my father, so of course I wish him all the happiness in the world. He loves Janette very much."

"What of his latest "reform"? Has he truly come back to us, or is this, too, just a phase?" the council member inquired, this time including Martin in the questioning with a shrewd glance.

"Who can say?" Jean Claude replied. "I don't claim to know my father's mind."

"LaCroix," Martin said at last. His voice echoed in the suddenly quiet room with the authority of one who knows the truth. "LaCroix would know what de Brabant is likely to do."

Aristotle looked up when he sensed the vampire presence in the doorway behind him. Turning, his face lit up when he saw the vampire. "Nick! Long time, no see! What's it been n--" Aristotle stopped mid-sentence when Martin Cross stepped into the room behind the other vampire. "Jean Claude. I'm truly sorry. I must have mistaken you for your Father. Please, won't you both come in."

The two Enforcers entered the basement office. While the Enforcers had no need of his services for themselves, they both knew they were in the presence of a master magician. With the touch of a key, Aristotle could make anyone disappear without a trace.

Jean Claude gave him a slight smile. "No offense taken. Sometimes people do mistake me for him. It doesn't bother me," he told Aristotle.

"Nice setup you've got here," Martin commented. He and his cousin had already fallen into their usual routine-- good cop, bad cop. They hadn't planned it; they never did, but Jean Claude's golden-boy attitude made a great contrast with Martin's steely gaze and firm jaw. That made it all the more easy for them to play the game well.

"T-thank you," Aristotle stammered in reply. He knew Martin was a formidable vampire and no one to anger.

"I bet you see a lot of people through here, don't you? You help them to disappear," Martin continued.

"You know I do. It's common knowledge. Did you come here merely to ask a question you don't really need me to answer?" responded Aristotle. Martin stiffened, as if he were holding himself back from some act of violence. before he could do or say anything, however, Jean Claude stepped in.

"Please, Martin, let me." When Martin nodded, he turned to Aristotle, his smile gone although traces of it still warmed his face. "We came to you because you are my father's trusted friend. I'm hoping I can trust you, as well."

"You? You need my services? Where do you want to go?"

"Nowhere," Jean Claude admitted. "I need to find someone. Quickly."

"You know I can't do that," said Aristotle. "All my work is confidential."

"I know that, but it's a matter of some importance to people in *rather* high places."

Aristotle caught the young Enforcer's innuendo and realized that they had been sent by the High Council. Whoever they wanted must have done something catastrophic to bring down *their* wrath. Still, his insistence upon confidentiality made him hesitate.

"Well?" Jean Claude asked in the silence which had fallen.

"Johnny has been *very* nice tonight," Martin interjected. "But he doesn't have to. We were authorized to do *whatever* it took to get what we need."

"Cousin!" Nick's son hissed. "You should excuse him, Aristotle. He's spent too many long hours behind a desk. He seethes for fresh blood."

The apology had the desired effect upon Aristotle, who felt that the stern Enforcer had his blood in mind. "V-very well, Jean Claude. Who is it you need me to find?" he asked.

"Lucien LaCroix."

Part XIV

Lucien LaCroix gazed out at the stormy waters of the South Pacific from his beach house window. The storm which had begun to brew in the early morning was now thrashing the shores of his island hideaway. Inky black skies matched his dark mood as he started at the letter in his hand. Upset as he was, he did not hear Fleurette as she came out onto the terrace.

"Lucien?" she queried, slipping beside him and wrapping an arm around him. "What's the matter?"

LaCroix turned to gaze upon his life's love. When they first came to the island, he'd known the day would come that they would have to leave. What he had not known was that the time would come so soon. Neither of them had wanted it. Fleurette had been distraught at losing her daughter, as well as Daniel's sudden flight from their household. This was why he had brought her here-- no one except himself and one other knew of this island. It was a place where he could go to isolate himself from the rest of the world. In his mind, they'd both needed time to get over their losses. As that was the case, he did not particularly want to tell her of the news which had reached him.

Taking her hands and turning to face her, he asked gently, "How would you feel about a little trip, ma cherie?"

"Leave here?" she asked in return. "I hadn't thought of it. Why?"

He waved the letter slightly, drawing her attention to it. "I have been given an invitation to a party... in London. Would you care to go?"

Fleurette eyed him, obviously wondering why he was being so vague. "Is there something you're not telling me, Lucien? I thought we were going to ignore the world around us for a while."

LaCroix sighed. His little flower was no dummy. She could see that something was wrong. "Very well, my dear. The party is merely an excuse to get me there. It is the High Council's way of saying that they request my presence in their circle. Something important is afoot."

"Do you know what that is?" Fleurette asked.

LaCroix nodded. "I do. Your Uncle Nicholas has created a bit of a stir in London, and I've been asked to take care of it."

Her eyes went wide. She'd thought Nick's days of being in trouble had ended when he gave up his ridiculous quest for a cure. "What has he done?" She asked in alarm.

"He wants to be married," LaCroix replied in disgust.

"But... that's a good thing, isn't it, Lucien?"

LaCroix had not realized that his love might not have been introduced to this particular aspect of the vampire existence. Did she even know what a joining was? He asked her, and when she said that she did not, he told her that a joining was a marriage of sorts. He then told her that her uncle and Janette and been joined together once in the past, but now they were not. "Nicholas wishes to join with her again," he said.

"That's wonderful!" Fleurette beamed.

"No, my dear, it is not. According to our laws, your uncle should not be allowed to wed again-- most especially not to Janette."

"Why not?"

LaCroix explained to her that in order to be joined to another vampire, both the masters had to approve the match. What was more, the High Council of the Enforcers had to give a majority vote in favor of the joining, as a joining was meant to be a permanent and eternal thing. "Because of your uncle's desire to regain his mortality, the High Council annulled their joining. Now, after all these years, Nicholas has petitioned to rejoin with Janette. The High Council wishes me to help them decide whether he is truly worthy of the happiness he seeks."

"Doesn't everyone deserve to be with their one true love, Lucien?" Fleurette asked.

LaCroix could see that she was swept up in the idea of a romantic wedding. In his mind's eye, he could also see his favored son convincing him to part with the only thing in centuries that meant anything to him-- Fleur. Again he felt the pain of leaving her, as fresh as the night it had happened. Although he loved Fleur's descendant with the same intensity, his heart still ached for the love it had lost.

He'd threatened Nicholas may times in the past-- vowing to take away all that he loved as payment for Fleur. He'd haunted his son, stalking and menacing until Nicholas hated him. In more recent years, the two had finally gotten past all of the hate. Now, this had to happen. Nicholas wanted a lasting commitment with Janette. Lasting happiness. Except that his happiness now rested in LaCroix's hands.

Fleurette wanted him to give Nick his dream. LaCroix gazed upon his paramour intently. So much like Fleur she was, and yet not so at the same time. He missed Fleur greatly, but losing her had made it possible for him to find Fleurette. Technically speaking, he and Nicholas were even now. Could he allow Nicholas eternal happiness? Or would the temptation to inflict upon his son a heartache equal to his own be too much to pass up?

Part XV

"Good evening, Martin. I'm quite pleased you could join me." Edgar waved Martin in the direction of a plush chair, indicating that he should sit down.

"It isn't every day I get an invitation from a member of the High Council who isn't Kisha," Martin quipped, giving Edgar a small smile.

Edgar chuckled in turn. "She has a very strong desire for you, my boy. We are all amazed at how long you resisted her charms." "That was a mistake, Edgar. I never should have slept with her that night," Martin said vehemently.

"Ahh..." murmured the puissant Enforcer. "... but your heart remained true to Ms. Lambert, did it not?" Martin nodded stiffly. He did not enjoy reliving the memory of his infidelity.

"If you don't mind, I'd rather not discuss this," he told Edgar rather sharply.

"Ah! I see. You wish to put the whole thing behind you. Well, I can assure you, Martin Cross, that you *will* put it in the past-- once you are secure in your position on the Council."

Martin, who had remained standing before, now fell into the chair in near shock. Was Edgar saying what he thought he was saying? In his mind, he could hear Lady Marie congratulating him. I knew you would make it, my son. Martin, however, did not want to make false assumptions. He shook the hope from his heart and turned his gaze expectantly to Edgar.

Edgar chuckled again. Of those on the Council, he alone had been closest to Marie, and because of that closeness, he knew alone knew what this offer meant to Martin. "Kisha gave her evaluation to the Council last night. She spoke very highly of the power inside you, Martin. Upon her recommendation, we are prepared to offer you your rightful place in the seat Lady Marie vacated." Edgar handed Martin a sealed envelope.

"What's this?"

"Your invitation to the big event, of course."

"The masked ball?" Martin asked. Once in each century, the "social elite" of the entire vampire community came together for a grand masquerade in London. It was the one and only time that members of the High Council and their foot-soldiers, the Enforcers, communed with "lesser" vampires. All done under the secrecy of masks and fine costumes.

Edgar nodded. "Invitations will also be sent to your family. Lucien LaCroix's elusive clan will be well received."

"Natalie?" Martin knew that Natalie had be stigmatized due to her association with de Brabant's hopeless and now defunct quest.

Edgar cleared his throat nervously. "Ms. Lambert won't be receiving an invitation in her own name." He waved his hand to squelch Martin's protests. "She's still a fledgling, Martin. She would never have been offered an invitation under normal circumstances. You know that."

"But... she's family. She's LaCroix's."

"True... true," Edgar conceded. "And had LaCroix been here, he would have received a guest pass for her. It is his responsibility to introduce her to our Community."

"So now she is to be denied her social coming out? She is LaCroix's child and my family. She deserves to be there," Martin insisted.

Edgar had been trying hard to hold in a smile, but now he burst into open laughter. "I told them you would say as much. You'll find a guest pass with your invitation. I expect you'll be escorting Ms. Lambert. I shall be pleased to finally meet your lady."

Martin fell silent for several minutes as the words he heard sunk in. He was being allowed to bring Natalie to the ball. They expected it of him. To what end? When the Council did a personal favor like this, they expected something in return. No favor went unpaid.

"What must I do to make up for this honor?" he asked finally. "Nothing," Edgar said. "Nothing save accept or refuse our offer by the final night of the festivities."

"Good evening, Edgar," came a sultry voice from the doorway. Edgar looked up and was greeted by the sight of Kisha, wearing little more than a white toga, leaning in his doorway. She had that "man-killer" look about her that most people tried to avoid.

"Evening, Kisha. Going... casual tonight?" Kisha was noted for wearing whatever she wished, despite what styles might be more popular or appropriate at the time.

"Do you like it?" Kisha purred, slinking into the room like the cat that she was. She sidled up to Edgar as he rose from his desk in greeting.

"It's very... enticing." Kisha had pressed herself against him, and Edgar was finding free thought difficult.

She brought her face so close to his that their noses almost touched. "You and I, Edgar, would make a perfect pair. We are the two most powerful vampires on the Council-- the world, perhaps-- and I have often wondered why we have never joined forces. Together, we could easily rule the world." She accented her words with a brief kiss.

In truth, Edgar had never considered them to be a team in any way. They were too different. Edgar believed in keeping order among the Community; Kisha felt that all vampires should follow their more primitive instincts and desires. Had it not been for the fact that the majority vote in the Council sided with Edgar," Kisha would probably have killed off the earth's entire mortal population centuries ago.

Disentangling himself from her embrace, Edgar pushed away from her. "What do you want, Kisha? he asked suspiciously.

"Martin Cross." Kisha moved away from him even more, perching upon the plush seat Martin had vacated not even and hour earlier. She crossed her legs, giving Edgar a tantalizing view of her body beneath the toga.

"And just how is seducing me going to give you Martin?"

She laughed, a sound as sweet as sugar. "It's quite simple, really. You want Martin on the Council and I want him in my bed. Our goals suggest that we work together to achieve a common good."

Common good? Oh, brother... "Martin loves her, Kisha. He'll never love you," Edgar told her, dismissing her proposal immediately.

"He desires me; I have felt it in him. Besides, when he joins the High Council, he'll have no choice but to give her up. I may as well be the one to gain his affections."

"I know Martin, Kisha," Edgar told her. "He'll never forget Natalie, even after he joins us. *If* he joins us at all."

"If? What 'if'? The Council has always been his goal. Why would he give it up now, when he was so close?"

"It *was* his goal, but since he's met Natalie, Martin has gone through some extensive soul searching. Even his own master saw the change in him. Before she... left us... she warned me that there was a possibility that Martin would give up everything he's worked for to be with her."

Kisha became silent, but Edgar knew she was fuming. Her chest heaved with visible anger as she mulled over his words. At last she rose from her chair. "Natalie Lambert is turning out to be a bigger problem than I had originally anticipated. No matter, though. She's nothing I cannot handle. I have *ways* of eliminating my competition."

With that, she whirled out of the office, slamming the door behind her. For once, Edgar was not laughing. Kisha was a formidable opponent. He felt sorry for Martin and Natalie both.

Part XVI

"Who was at the door, Angele?" Janette asked. She sat upon the sofa, sketching a design for a new dress. Natalie was watching her with curiosity.

"How do you do that?" she asked. Janette was doing it all free-hand, with what seemed to be little planning at all.

"Centuries of practice," Janette told her. "Who, Angele?"

Angele had returned from the front door with two white envelopes in her hand. She handed one of them to her mother, saying, "There were only these."

They both opened them at the same time. Inside the white envelopes, gold lettering declared the date and time of the next masquerade and invited them to "join the festivities." Angele gave a small gasp-- one of both delight and surprise. Janette's, however, was more of shock.

"Mother?" "Janette?" Nat's voice mixed with Angele's in concern. There were tears in the older woman's eyes.

Janette handed Natalie the invitation and met her daughter's eyes. "I hardly expected this, Angele. Did you?"

"No, Mother," Angele replied. It had finally dawned on her why her mother had reacted in shock to the invitations. "Especially not after what happened the last time you and Uncle Nicolas attended."

"The last time?" Nat echoed, having read the invitation. She handed it back to Janette. "What happened the last time?"

"Nicolas and I were married during the course of one of these masquerades, Natalie. Sometime later, at another, our marriage was dissolved. It was very painful for me, and I have tried to avoid this aspect of our culture because of that pain."

"I'm sorry," Nat said. She'd heard about it before-- from Nick-- but had not realized what it had meant to Janette.

"You need not apologize," Janette told her. "It wasn't your fault."

"I... I know, but I..." Natalie stammered. She knew it wasn't her fault, but a part of her still felt responsible-- perhaps because she had been the last one to help Nick find his cure... and the last one to stand in the way of his happiness, it seemed.

Angele, who had been listening to this conversion and realized that Natalie was going to try to lay the blame for the past upon herself, decided it time to reroute the conversation. She picked up Janette's sketch and stared at it for a second.

"Mother!" she exclaimed. "This is simply divine!" The diversion worked, as both women turned to her, forgetting their discussion.

"Isn't it?" Nat gushed. "I've never met anyone with talent like this before."

Angele nodded. "And you know what I was just thinking? I think Mother should design our costumes for us. Don't you, Nat?"


"For the masquerade! Oh, Mother! Will you?"

Janette nodded. "Of course, my dear. You know I will. Natalie... would you like me to do yours, as well?"

Suddenly Nat was dumbfounded. "I don't even know if I've been invited."

"Well, I'm sure Martin has been," Angele proclaimed. "He'll take you."

"Well?" Janette asked again.

"I'd be honored if you would," Nat admitted.

"Then its settled!" Angele said happily. "Now-- come on! We've got a lot of shopping to do between now and the ball."

Martin returned home after his meeting with Edgar to find the house empty. The note Natalie had left told him that she was spending the evening with Angele and Janette. He could join them all for a late dinner if he got home in time. Jean Claude had been given an assignment in Bristol, and de Brabant was busy trying to locate a convenient piece of property for a house. That meant Martin was completely alone for the evening.

Which was just as well. He was tired. Tired of desk work and inactivity. Tired of feeling helpless. But most importantly, he was tired of the games the High Council played with his life. Staring at the invitation he had brought home, he suddenly felt overwhelmed by it all. The envelope wasn't even opened. He hadn't wanted to open it before, but now he dreaded it. Opening that envelope was to accept that very shortly his entire life would change one way or another. Martin was no longer certain he could welcome that change.

Feeling exhausted, he made his way to the bathroom. An hour or so in the hot tub would be just what he needed to relax, and then he could join the ladies for dinner. He poured a large dollop of Nat's favorite bubble bath into the tub and waited for the jet streams to make it bubble before slipping off his clothes and easing into the hot water.

"Ahhh...." he sighed, allowing the heat to soak into his tense muscles. Between the pleasant warmth and the relaxing smell of rose petals, Martin began to drift off to sleep. As he slept, he began to dream. For the first time in many years, Martin recalled the last time he had seen his mother.

*****Martin's Dream*****

"You must go, Martine! Do not stay here!" Fleur told her son, handing him a small pack full of clothes and some bread. "Your new master will meet you at the church in town. You're to go with him and make a new life for yourself. He'll teach you a trade."

"I don't want to become a potter, maman. I wish to stay here with you." The boy pushed the pack away.

"Your father insists. He says that we cannot care for the both of you. This is the only way, Martine. Please, go!" Fleur was crying. It was obvious that she did not want her son to leave. The decision, however, had not been hers to make.

"He hates me," the boy who would become Martin Cross stated. "He would kill me if he could." A light suddenly gleamed in his eyes. "I could kill *him* for you, Mother," he suggested.

Fleur gasped in surprise at her son's words. "No, Martine! I would not want that. I do not love your father, this you know, but he has been good to us. Someday... things will get better. Now, hurry... before he comes to see why you have not left."

From the open door, they could hear Fleur's husband calling out to them. His voice was harsh. "Why hasn't the brat left yet?" he called out. "I told you to get rid of the whelp."

At the sound of his voice, Martine slunk behind the door, hiding there. "I-I was just saying good-bye," Fleur called back. "He's leaving now." When her husband's footsteps faded away, Fleur sank to the floor. She was pale and trembling. "Please go, mon fils. I cannot protect you from him. He swore to kill you if were not gone by nightfall. Please, go!"

Martine stepped out from behind the door and hugged his mother for what he was sure would be the last time. Then he turned towards the gate. "I don't hate him, Mother," he said at last. "He cannot help what he is. The one whom I hate is mon oncle."

"Nicolas? Why?"

"Because it is his fault that you live like this. You could have been happy now, with someone you loved, instead of here with Father."

"No, Martine... do not believe so. My brother did what he thought was best for me. Sometimes I even think he was right. If not for his intervention, I would not have birth given to you or your brother."

"And that is worth this pain?" Martine asked. Fleur nodded, at the same time, motioning him to go.

The gate opened with a rusty squeak when the boy pushed against it. He turned back to face his mother one last time. His face was a mask of hatred. "I would rather be dead than live with the knowledge that Father may one day kill you and Andre," he spat out. He then turned on his heels and disappeared into the night.

*****End Dream*****

Martin awoke from the dream choking back a cry of sorrow.

"Mother!" he cried out to her memory, wishing he could return to the past and take back the those bitter words. They were the last words he said to her before he was called home while she lay dying. He'd come, wishing to beg her forgiveness. Instead, she made him vow to seek out LaCroix and deliver her message. Her last bequest had condemned him to relive the shame of those words forever.

With her death, his bitterness had grown until it almost devoured him. With Marie, he had found both an outlet and a purpose for it, but now she was gone as well. The hatred he had felt all those years ago had not left him. It had, however, subsided. Natalie had seen to that. She was so convinced of the goodness within both Nicholas de Brabant Knight and his master that it wasn't even funny. Moreover, her convictions had begun to soften Martin's heart where they were concerned. He still hated them both, just not as passionately these days.

Which brought his mind around to the issue he had been avoiding all evening: could he leave her to join the High Council? The mere thought of it broke his heart, and yet, so did the thought of letting the opportunity of a lifetime pass him by. It *was* just that-- a once-in-a-lifetime offer. If he refused it now, it would never be offered again. Moreover, once on the inside, he could possibly change the Council views about Natalie. Then, maybe someday, he would be able to see her again.

Maybe someday... Someday... things will get better... His mother's voice whispered to him from the recesses of his mind. "True," he told the echo. "But can Natalie and I withstand the wait? You couldn't."

Due to the fact that "real life" has pre-empted my life as an active member of fandom, I am placing "Wedding Day" on this web site in an incomplete form. The rest of the story will be up later, after it has been posted to FKFIC-L.

With Love,